The Riff - September 2007

If a Gay Musician Has a Picture of Naked Underage Girls, Can He Still Be Arrested?

| Wed Sep. 26, 2007 3:19 PM EDT

Elton JohnIt's a zen koan for the 21st century. Elton John is being faced with a child pornography investigation after a Nan Goldin portrait he owns of two naked girls was about to be included in a gallery show. The photograph, called "Klara and Edda Belly-dancing," was to be part of an exhibit at the Baltic gallery in Gateshead, UK, but managers there apparently called the police the day before its scheduled opening. That's right, the gallery called the police. Were they just suddenly wracked with paroxysms of guilt or something? "All this time we thought it was art, but we were wrong, officers, so wrong! Take it from us!" So the police have seized the photograph and are apparently still assessing its worthiness as art. A statement on Elton John's website pointed out that the photograph has been exhibited around the world with no previous kerfuffle. Besides, if they were going to seize something, why not seize this Donald Duck photo?

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Def Leppard Still Shirtless, Awesome

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 9:04 PM EDT
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The question pretty much answers itself, but in case you're wondering if seeing Styx, Foreigner, and Def Leppard together in one venue on one night might equal the concert-going experience of your lifetime, I can confirm: hell yes it does.

Okay, so it's kind of like a live, much more expensive version of the jukebox in your favorite bar, but after Styx played "Renegade" during their encore, my roommate was so, so right when she said, "That alone was worth the cost of the ticket," and I dare anyone else on that sold-out lawn to disagree. And yes, Foreigner is basically a cover band anymore, what with only the original guitarist still around, but when the former lead singer of Hurricane (na na na na na na, I'm on to you) does his best Lou Gramm impression in really tight pants through a set of every Foreigner classic you could think of requesting, you don't really care, even if you're an unironic Foreigner fan who's seen them in concert with the old lineup intact.

We weren't that interested in Def Leppard—who were headlining—going into it, but they played a long, rocking greatest hits list, and both their guitar players are disconcertingly buff and topless, and they've got a bass player whose every not-so-dramatic costume change came with a new correspondingly coordinated single fingerless glove. (I love you, Rick "Sav" Savage!) The above elements plus beer plus yelling the words to "Pour Some Sugar on Me" along with several thousand middle-aged white women and beefy dudes in sleeveless T-shirts pretty much equals the best Tuesday night ever.

Unless you happen to live near one of the four remaining tour stops, you probably won't get to experience a slice of this three-tiered rock cake yourself. At least this year. The bands tour pretty regularly, and if the onstage antics of their spry front men (picture lots of senseless running to and fro) are any indication, they'll be up to it again soon. If you're lucky.

Culver City: Where Dub Meets Lounge

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 7:53 PM EDT
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Anyone else remember all the cruddy bands nationwide that tried to play reggae-influenced music in the 90s? Well, I do. Thankfully, the Culver City Dub Collective, a group whose members were in some of those bands, is doing its best to not have us relive that era.

The group's 2007 debut CD Dos is unique, creative, well-produced, and played by a handful of talented musicians. There is definitely some reggae music here that is slick, tasteful, and very "dub" (so, plenty of heavy echo and reverb, thick bass lines, and more space for one or two isolated sounds to resonate), but the southern California group's name is misleading because they don't just play dub reggae. The Culver City Dub Collective mixes Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz, lounge, and folk with its reggae sounds; which is obviously not a new idea in music, but this group mixes its genres with skill and flair.

"No More My Love" is a straight-up Brazilian, bossa nova-inspired track along the lines of "Girl From Ipanema" and Jack Johnson's surf-folk vocals on "Crying Shame" make the song feel suitable for a beach blanket party circa 2007. "Eloise (Baghdad mix)" pairs Middle Eastern-sounding chord progressions (think gypsy music) with a bouncy, reggae- and hip-hop-inspired drum beat while "Waltz for Tomahawk" mixes lofty, John Coltrane-inspired saxophone riffs with enough dark undertones and atmospheric horn accents to make it perfect for a Noir film score.

It's no surprise The Collective has diverse sounds; it has a vast lineup of guest musicians, not all of which have a history of playing reggae. Ben Harper, Beastie Boys keyboardist Money Mark, original Jane's Addiction bass player Eric Avery, and Jump With Joey leader Joey Altruda all sit in. This roundup of mostly Southern Californian musicians are not just having fun with a genre, they're contributing new ideas to it.

Congressional Hip-Hop Hearings Not as Fun as PMRC Hearings

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 5:08 PM EDT

Bad CEO!

Rappers and music executives gave testimony today at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on "stereotypes and degrading images" in hip-hop music. Attendees were treated to a guilt-wracked Master P ("I just made the music that I feel, not realizing I'm affecting kids for tomorrow") and a mildly irritated David Banner ("If... hip-hop was silenced, the issues would still be present"), along with slimy CEOs, none of whom seem to have ever seen Martin Short's old Nathan Thrum sketches. Mostly, though, the hearings were about Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who managed to corral all the execs to his little show, proving that despite his liberal credentials (a former Black Panther!) he can exploit fear of art with the best of the conservatives, tossing in some accusations of damaging the black community for added liberal guilt. We've covered this here before, so let's let Patrick Goldstein in the LA Times point out the trouble with all this:

If I could print a batch of current hip-hop lyrics -- which I can't, because my newspaper has its own standards about offensive language -- most of us could probably agree that much of the language is abhorrent. But it isn't so easy to find a consensus about the next step -- what to do about it? It's one thing to nod your head in agreement when a silver-tongued talk-show host advocates getting rid of all that insulting language until you start to wonder: Who's in charge of defining what's degrading and how far are they going to take it?

Bingo. Well, since nothing ever comes of these types of hearings but some temporary anxiety, you can at least appreciate them for the entertainment value, and in that regard, "Imus to Industry" doesn't hold a candle to the PMRC hearings. It was 22 years ago last week when the videos for "Hot for Teacher" and "We're Not Gonna Take It" were shown in our government's hallowed chambers, and Frank Zappa put on a suit to come and rip the committee a new one, saying:

The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design.

Even the late, great John Denver surprised committee members by siding with the metalheads, saying censors often misinterpret music (like his "Rocky Mountain High") and that censorship backfires:

That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting. Consequently, a great deal of time and energy is spent trying to get at what is being kept from you.

Of course, the House Un-American Activities Committee, now that was good times. Kids these days just don't know how to throw a hearing.

Top Ten Stuff 'n' Things - 9/24/07

| Tue Sep. 25, 2007 12:15 AM EDT

This week, quirky covers, funky remixes, shadow puppets, and hyperactive remixers, plus if M.I.A. can't be in the Top Ten without a Riff revolt, I'll find someone who sounds like her, dammit!

Japancakes10. Japancakes - "Only Shallow" (from Loveless on Darla)
(mp3 at Pitchfork)
It's an eyebrow-raising gimmick: record all of My Bloody Valentine's classic album in a countrified style. It turns out this Athens, Georgia combo have found a hidden link between country and shoegaze, with the pedal steel guitar a perfect instrument to capture the warping harmonies of the original. Actually, I just love pedal steel guitar. Plus the use of the piano to take on the ambient interlude is inspired.

Partyshank9. Various Artists - Partyshank Mixtape (grab an mp3 at Kidz by Colette)
You get the idea from their publicity photo: Partyshank are a couple of London kids in bright sweatshirts playing with kooky plastic toys, and this hyperactive mix, full of goofball references and sped-up effects, is cartoonish in the best sense. The duo plunders soul, 80s and rave music; anything, really, just as long as it keeps the energy up.

Athlete8. Athlete - "In Between 2 States" (from Beyond the Neighborhood, out 9/25 on EMI)
(mp3 at DriveByMedia)
The London combo had been lumped into the Coldplay-wannabe crowd since their 2006 hit single, "Wires;" who knew they could give Boards of Canada a run for their money. This short but sweet sample from their new album features a distorted drum machine and airy electric piano chords, but when the guitars come in, the track achieves an epic scope.

Santogold7. Santogold - "Creator"
(mp3 at Nialler9)
Okay, she's a buddy of M.I.A., she kind of looks like M.I.A., and this was produced by M.I.A.'s producer Switch. Well, so what; even if this sounded just like M.I.A., the world could use more M.I.A.'s. But, this Brooklyn-based singer is a little more intense and definitely more American, although the backing track sounds like grime from outer space.

Les Savy Fav6. Les Savy Fav - "What Wolves Would Do" (from Let's Stay Friends on Frenchkiss)
(listen to the whole album at their Virb page)
This New York band hasn't released a new album in 6 years, and while they've always been in the dictionary under "angular," this track softens the new wave-y guitar with soft harmonies, kind of like Bloc Party after they did a little more living and maybe hung out with TV on the Radio for a while. Worth it if only for the "ahoooooo" howls in the chorus.

"Heroes" Season Two Premieres Tonight - Party at My House

| Mon Sep. 24, 2007 6:25 PM EDT

Heroes
The saga of NBC's breakout hit "Heroes" is oddly inspiring. Remember back in the Fall of '06, everyone was excited about this new show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." It's Sorkin Does SNL! What could go wrong? Like millions of TV viewers, I tuned in for "Studio 60," and then just left the TV on, discovering a kind of cheesy "X-Men" ripoff with an eye-rollingly bland and weirdly jingoistic title. And, like millions of viewers, by the third week, I'd stopped even turning on the TV til 9pm, completely exasperated by "Studio 60" and enthralled with "Heroes." I'm a sci-fi junky, for sure, especially if the World Hangs in the Balance, but "Heroes" had unusual charms for a network TV show: first of all, its ethnic diversity was unparalleled for prime-time, with multiple interracial romantic relationships, and significant portions of the show taking place in Japanese with English subtitles. After a while, I began to get the sneaking suspicion that the producers had chosen the title "Heroes" as a kind of cover—behind the vaguely 9/11-y protection of that word, the show was free to push the envelope.

Not that its first season was without troubles. The cast's diversity didn't extend to the gays, and what appeared to be a gay character seemed to suddenly re-enter the closet; plus, an extended subplot about a mother's "bad side" got kind of annoying. Its finale was also underwhelming, with the flying politician sacrificing himself to save New York City in a cheap "oops sorry I've been evil this whole time but now I'm real sorry" plot twist. But for sheer inventiveness, the series reached some amazing heights, most notably an episode set five years in the future, full of head-spinning unexplained situations and dystopian terror. Plus, hello: George Takei!!

Tonight, we pick up where we left off: Hiro's stuck, inexplicably, in feudal Japan, baddy Sylar survived, and a new bigger baddy is apparently on the way. "Heroes" is no "Buffy" (despite its superhero cheerleader subplot) and who knows if the series can survive the transition from ignored underdog to great white hope of a sinking network. But tonight at 9, I'll be tuned in.

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Producers Tailoring Mixes for iPods

| Mon Sep. 24, 2007 4:50 PM EDT

MP3 Spectrum Analysis

NME is featuring a British production combo, The Boilerhouse Boys, who got sick of nobody knowing who they were, and decided to craft a press release touting their supposedly new production technique that's specifically designed for the iPod. The previously-anonymous Boys say they analyzed early stereo recordings, as well as the compression effects of MP3 and Apple AAC encoding, to come up with their innovative strategy: turn up the treble!

'Poduction' works by giving a boost to the higher frequencies, copying Motown recording techniques. Now even the likes of Kaiser Chiefs are set to release a 'poduction' remix, reports BBC News. Explaining their method further, Ben Wolff, one half of The Boilerhouse Boys said: "All of those Motown singles were sent up to the technical department who would analyse it and send it back with recommendations on how to make it louder. They'd say 'add another tambourine, put in some footsteps', or whatever. "I don't think the average fan will necessarily be able to tell the difference", Wolff added, "but you'll know which one you like more, even if you don't know why."

Well, if I see a news story about the Boilerhouse Boys, now I know why. Anyway, the quality issue about mp3s is hard to pin down; compression methods vary depending on the encoder, and they've advanced significantly in the past few years. A "Variable Bit Rate" 128 kbit/s mp3 in joint stereo created using a current encoder can sound almost as good as a CD, depending on the song, and Apple's AAC encoding (used with songs you buy from iTunes) has always sounded pretty good at 128 kbit/s. But the Boilerhouse Boys are right that it's the high end where you can really hear the difference with a crappy mp3: a kind of crackly blockiness on the hi-hat, like the audio equivalent of a bad JPEG (see the spectrum analysis of an mp3 above). However, with most current recordings maxed out in terms of volume anyway (compare a new CD with one of your old Cure CDs or something), it's unclear how much louder any part can get.

The uncompressed audio on a regular CD is recorded at the equivalent of 1378 kbit/s; that means it has ten times the info of your iTunes AAC file, no matter how well it's encoded. And let's not forget vinyl records, whose method of pressing grooves into black glop has a resolution limited only by, well, the size and number of atoms in the glop. Now that's bit rate. I've always preferred the warmth of vinyl, and that's why I don't feel bad about grabbing free mp3s: if I really like 'em, I'll buy the record. But honestly, I probably lost about 30% of my hearing at a My Bloody Valentine show in 1992 that was like standing inside a fluffy pink jet engine, so who knows what things really sound like.

Fun With Ping Pong

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 8:53 PM EDT

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"Weird Al" Yankovic is famous for recording spoof versions of pop songs, but Ubiquity recording artist Shawn Lee doesn't merely spoof, he takes a song that was already good and makes it better. It's not so much ironic pranksterism as kickass, creative borrowing. Think of him as an artier, hipper version of Weird Al.

Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra, which releases Hits the Hits on October 9, changes the entire vibe and aesthetic of other people's songs. Lee turns Missy Elliot's "Get UR Freak On" into an ominous surf-guitar rant; Britney Spears' "Toxic" into an instrumental driven by sitar and flute melodies and hard, funky drum beats; and OutKast's hit "Hey Ya" into a swanky saloon diddy powered by accoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica.

With his collection of vintage instruments (a 1940s Clavioline, a 100-year-old Marxophone zither, and a 1900s Dulcetone), random assortment of covers—and talent—these songs are as funny as they are meticulously-performed. Pop this CD in at a stuffy wine and cheese party and see who's first to notice something is awry.


From the Funk Corner to the Hip-Hop Block

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 8:46 PM EDT
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Galactic's hip-hop-influenced 2007 CD From the Corner to the Block is further proof that I have seriously misjudged this band. A few years ago, having heard only a few songs and met plenty of hippie-ish fans, I was quick to write Galactic off as a jam band.

Don't get me wrong; the New Orleans-based funk-rock-jazz-fusion band, with its abilities to stretch songs out with extended solos and their ability to swing back and forth effortlessly between mid-volume funky pockets and loud, sustained sections of rock energy make them very jam-like.

But From the Corner to the Block is something else entirely. Songs on the CD average about three-and-a-half minutes, and have definitive verses, choruses and bridges. Guest hip-hop MCs like Lyrics Born, Mr. Lif, Boots Riley, Lateef the Truth Speaker, and Gift of Gab anchor the songs and make this album a veritable who's-who of today's (mostly Bay Area) hip hop artists. And listening to tracks, it sounds like everyone had a helluva good time making the album. The artwork, a stylized, brown-toned sketch of people walking through what looks like an artist's rendition of the French Quarter, is a nice touch also.

When interviewed about collaborating with Galactic, the deep-voiced Jurassic 5 MC Chali 2Na said, "I'm shocked, but yet I'm not surprised. It's a no-brainer. When we were in practice, it felt good, it felt right."

Blending and Bending with UFOs over Bamako

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 8:44 PM EDT

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Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure's self-titled 2006 debut spawned a 2007 remix album that I can't stop listening to. I play it at work, on BART to and from work, and at night doing Google searches for God-knows-what.

The remix album, UFOs Over Bamako, takes the effectiveness of the original's West African rhythms, conga-heavy beats, sweet but somber vocal hooks and spacious, acoustic simplicity and works it into a mix that bounces with intensity; an earthy, full sound that more DJs should be spinning at dance clubs. The use of electronic beats and digital sound effects doesn't kill Farka Toure's vibe; it takes it to a level that is less contemplative and more stylized, more beat-heavy and less spacious. The resulting remix is a combination of folk and electronica that could easily have been awkward but instead is a great piece of musical blending—and bending.

Vieux Farka Toure is the son of Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure, who until his death last year was one of Africa's most internationally-recognized musicians. There's a story that during a visit to Bamako, Mali in the late 1960's, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and John Lee Hooker introduced Ali Farka Toure to the blues. He eventually toured Africa, Europe, and America, and in 1992 earned a Grammy for Talking Timbuktu, which he recorded with globe-trotting American guitarist Ry Cooder.

Just as his father was fascinated by the African roots in American blues music, Vieux Farka Toure's remix CD embraces the global connection between African rhythms and reggae, certain elements of club music, and electronica.